The biggest crowd in the history of Dallas' Cotton Bowl watched in post-Thanksgiving-dinner euphoria last week when the Cowboys ground down Cleveland 26-14 to take the Browns all but out of the Eastern Conference race in the National Football League and establish a winning momentum for themselves. The 80,000-odd fans doubtless will be back on New Year's Day to watch the Cowboys have at the Green Bay Packers for the NFL championship and a chance to play in the supergame.
Of course, the Cowboys have not yet won the Eastern title, but only an atrocious reversal of the form they displayed against Cleveland could thwart them. "I think we will be the most consistent winners in pro football for the next few years," said Quarterback Don Meredith after the game. "Right now we're something like 18, 5 and 1 since the middle of last season. I don't think the Packers or the Browns have won that consistently." Meredith was right: the Packers, in their last 24 games (including exhibitions), are 16, 7 and 1, and the Browns are 16 and 8.
The new-found consistency of the Cowboys is the result of a lucky injury—to Mel Renfro—and of Meredith's reluctant conversion to the Tom Landry philosophy of football. Meredith likes to throw the bomb; Landry is content with shorter gains on percentage plays. Oh, there have been other contributing factors. The club is mature, and both units are set at last, and the extra rapid development of a trio of young players—Dan Reeves, Willie Townes and Jethro Pugh—has helped. But Meredith has been the moving factor and Reeves, who would have played little had Renfro not been injured early in the season, has given the mopey Dallas ground attack the élan it needed.
By the time Renfro recovered, Reeves had so firmly established himself in the offensive backfield that Landry could return Renfro to safety, where he is rated among the top three in the NFL.
The Cowboy victory over the Browns was a perfect demonstration of the multiple talents of the team. Under the noon-bright illumination of extra lights provided for the TV color cameras, Dallas seemed to be a younger, faster edition of the Packers.
It is not easy to puncture the sophisticated Cleveland defense. Against the Browns in Cleveland, on October 23, Meredith had been intercepted four times, trying to hit receivers in the seams in the Cleveland zone. He had been under heavy pressure from the Cleveland defensive line and from the Cleveland blitzes. Only late in the game, with the issue decided, did Meredith begin to hit; the 30-21 score did not truly measure the superiority of the Browns in that game.
The Brown offense moved the ball well; Ryan, given ample time to throw, had no difficulty finding free receivers. Cleveland double-teamed Bob Lilly, Dallas' fine tackle, taking away much of the Cowboys' pass rush and placing an impossible burden on the deep defenders. Ryan was never caught for a loss attempting to pass.
"Dallas makes it awful hard for you to get many things done," Ryan said charitably before the teams' return match. "This is the best defense in the league. You have to choose the right weapon at the right time."
This time Ryan faced a significantly different defense. Ernie Stautner, the old Pittsburgh tackle who now coaches the Dallas defensive line, had swapped the positions of Pugh and Townes, a pair of large, quick linemen. Pugh originally had been a defensive end and Townes a defensive tackle. Neither of them had been impressive enough to budge Jim Colvin or Larry Stephens out of the defensive line. Both Colvin and Stephens were good football players, but neither was adept at penetrating deep enough to frighten a quarterback. Stautner moved Townes out to end, brought Pugh in to defensive tackle, and, presto! the Cowboys suddenly had a pass rush from the left side.
Landry wanted more—some relief for Lilly, who was so good that he was getting the attention of two blockers. Against Pittsburgh the week before, Landry tried a center blitz. Corner Linebacker Lee Roy Jordan, assisted by another linebacker looping into the middle, fired in on Pittsburgh's rookie quarterback time and again. With two linebackers slamming into the center, the Steelers could not spare a blocker to double-team Lilly. The result: Dallas trapped the Steeler quarterback 12 times attempting to pass, nearly trapped him twice more, and when the Steelers tried to use a halfback option pass Lilly dragged Dick Hoak down from behind.
At Dallas, Ryan was aware of all the risks. "They may try to blitz more this time," he said. "We're equipped to handle any blitz. It's a guessing game."
The Cowboys showed Ryan the center blitz a couple of times to make him wary, but they depended on the fast charge of the front four most of the evening, and that was enough. Lilly, Pugh and Townes dropped Ryan five times behind the line of scrimmage. In the second half he was so thoroughly bedeviled that he completed only three of 12 passes.
In this game, Ryan guessed wrong. But the guessing was not that important. The Cowboys are becoming a team against which guessing is not enough—and they should stay that way for the next few years. Their young, ebullient front four wore down the Cleveland offensive line. In the previous game, the Browns came off a bye, and the Cowboys came off a disappointing tie with St. Louis. This time the two teams had only three days rest, and the Brown offensive line, considerably older than the Dallas defensive players, got tired. It will not be getting any younger.
While it was still reasonably fresh, the Brown offensive line broke Leroy Kelly loose once for 38 yards and occasionally opened cracks for him in the middle of the Dallas line, but by the waning moments of the third period he had been effectively shut off. Sadly, elderly Lou Groza, with a stiff back and feeling his age, had what must have been among the worst days in his long and productive career as a field-goal kicker. He made two attempts in the first half from short range (28 and 31 yards). One was kicked flat and the other ducked sharply to the left like a hooked drive. On his only other chance, Dallas' speedy Mike Gaechter raced in untouched to block the ball.
Meredith's reluctant espousal of the Landry philosophy of percentages paid off handsomely. The Brown zone defense presented an almost insurmountable obstacle to the long pass. It took away the big boom of the Dallas attack—the long throw to Bob Hayes, the Olympic sprint champion. One Brown defender covered Hayes short and the safety man on that side prudently backpedaled into the deep zone so that he would be in position to knock down or intercept a long pass. This forced the Browns into man-to-man coverage on the other side of the line, and Meredith took advantage of the situation to sting them on a third-down pass to Frank Clarke when the Cowboys very much needed a first down.
The Brown linebackers are key players; they must help out in the short zone area, dropping off the line to blanket the field just over the line of scrimmage. To discourage them, Landry put a draw play to Fullback Don Perkins on the ready list. By the second half the Brown linebackers were aware of the threat of Perkins' run and were loth to drop back quickly. Consequently, they left a wide crack in the Cleveland zone in the area between the linebackers and the defensive backs, and Meredith exploited this with a series of short passes into the open area.
As the game went along, it became apparent that the Cowboys would not be able to free Hayes on one of the long, long passes that have become his trademark. But it was evident, too, that if the Browns insisted upon distorting their defense to prevent that long, long pass, they must perforce weaken their defense against medium-and short-range passes and against the runs of Perkins and Reeves. Late in the game, when they began to tighten up a bit and risked single coverage on Hayes, Meredith reminded the Browns of the fallacy in that defensive philosophy. He called a long pass to Hayes, and the sprinter flew by Mike Howell into the open. The ball was well thrown and would have been a touchdown had not Howell, knowing that he had been beaten, waved his hands in Hayes's face, drawing an interference penalty but saving a touchdown. The penalty put the ball on the Cleveland 19, and the Cowboys eventually settled for three points when Danny Villanueva kicked the third of his four field goals. That Dallas had to kick was a measure of the Browns' defensive strength.
The first of the Cowboys' two touchdowns came when Meredith, on third and six from the Cleveland six, threw a flat pass to Reeves, who broke two tackles to score. Reeves is not a big man—he is 6 feet 1 and 201 pounds—or a very fast man, but he has extraordinary balance and he can make the halfback option go; he was a quarterback at South Carolina two years ago and once passed for 240 yards against Nebraska.
The second Cowboy touchdown was scored by Don Perkins from the Cleveland nine-yard line. The play was sent in from the sideline, and Meredith—who once boggled at some of Landry's calls but now accepts them unquestioningly—handed off to Perkins on the right side of the Cowboy line. The blocking ahead of Perkins was impeccable. He feinted Erich Barnes out of his low-top shoes and walked in for a touchdown to make the final score. The exultant Cowboys had wrapped up the biggest victory in their short history.
One of the signs hanging over the wall in the garishly decorated Cotton Bowl read "Modern Mathematics for Dr. Ryan: 17+22+11 = 7." For those unfamiliar with the numbers of the Cowboy players, that may be translated to read, "Meredith to Hayes plus Villanueva equals a touchdown."
Unfortunately for the rest of the Eastern Conference, the formula is a much longer one. You would have to include all the numbers on both the offensive and defensive units to find the formula that produces victory for the Cowboys.
The ingredients are of most immediate interest to one team—the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals are now tied with the Cowboys for first place in the division with an 8-2-1 record (the tie, of course, was with Dallas). With Charley Johnson, their regular quarterback, out for the season with an injury and only Terry Nofsinger to make their bid for the Eastern title, the Cardinals are in serious trouble.
This they demonstrated Sunday in their 6-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, winning by the desperate margin of a Jim Bakken field goal. They had had two weeks off to prepare for the game, after taking a 30-9 beating from the Steelers. The Cardinals improved by 24 points in two weeks, but they seem far from a match for Dallas in their Cotton Bowl showdown Sunday.
Nofsinger is a tall, shaggy-haired blond who has been on the fringe of pro football for six years. He is the type of quarterback who is carried as third man if a team is so well fortified it does not need insurance at, say, offensive guard. He is vulnerable to pressure, as are most quarterbacks of this ilk—and as he showed in both games with the Steelers. They harried him unmercifully in the first game and seeped through to drop him for key losses Sunday, including two fumbles. He completed only four of 16 passes for a meaningless net 29 yards.
"I don't know about Dallas next week," he said afterward, wearing the puzzled expression that has become habitual since he took over from Johnson. "I just don't know."
The Cardinals gained 199 yards on the ground to set up their two field goals, but it is extremely doubtful that they will be able to run that well against Dallas. Pass against Dallas? No.
Under the best of conditions, Nofsinger has not shown exceptional ability as a passer, and in St. Louis a fierce wind nullified the small talent he has. Even with a muddy, slippery field that prevented the Steeler line from mounting the biggest kind of pass rush and left the Steeler backs unable to cut with the Cardinal receivers, Nofsinger was almost totally ineffective. He should be even more bedeviled by Dallas.
The Cardinal defense is still sound. It held the Steelers to a total of 32 yards rushing and 48 passing, but it must be pointed out that Pittsburgh is also operating with a novice quarterback and with no runners or receivers to match those possessed by Dallas.
It would take a sound and inspired St. Louis team to beat Dallas if Johnson were playing quarterback at his best. With Terry Nofsinger, whose main claim to distinction may be a fan club in Greenland (which wrote him a letter of encouragement before the Pittsburgh game), the Cardinal chances appear remote. It looks like a cold, cold winter in Greenland and St. Louis.